three library issues, part 2: rfid self-checkout

Increasing numbers of public libraries are moving towards a self-checkout system, based on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. This is not the slow and often painful process you encounter in Ikea or Home Depot, where customers are forced to supply free labour by doing the work of cashiers, while corporations pocket the savings. (I've been planning to write about that for a while; future post.)

RFID in libraries is a simple process: you can view an example here. Customers can check out a big stack of items by placing the entire stack on the sensor and inserting their library card into a slot. RFID checkout eliminates the need to scan the barcode of each item individually, and several customers can check out all their items at the same time. Libraries will (or at least should!) still have a circulation clerk on hand to greet customers and help people who don't want to use the RFID equipment.

I have mixed feelings about this. RFID checkout is quick and easy to use. It does make the checkout process faster and more efficient. It also puts people out of work. And there are privacy issues inherent in the use of RFID that are largely being ignored.

First the labour issue. I don't expect companies to retain outdated technology in order to keep people employed, and in the public sector there is an obligation to hold down costs. But is the technology actually outdated, or is some corporation profiting from their ability to convince us that it is?

As the Mississauga Library System transitions into RFID self-checkout over the next couple of years, no one will be laid off (or so we are told), but people who leave or retire will not be replaced. This has been the case for many years; the workforce is being cut by attrition. Lower-skilled jobs continue to disappear, and options for decent employment continue to shrink.

The Mississauga Library is aggressively promoting RFID self-checkout to staff. In addition to saving time and being more efficient, we are told that self-checkout improves staff health and safety, and improves customer privacy. This strains credibility. The health of circulation staff has not been a major concern, and while circulation clerks will no longer see what items a customer borrows, RFID is not a privacy protector. It is a privacy threat. For more information on RFID privacy issues, see "RFID tags: Big Brother in small packages" by Declan McCullagh at CNET. Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, authors of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID follow RFID-related news on their website, SpyChip.com. A more nuanced view is found here: How RFID Will Impact Consumer Privacy.

Customer privacy is of the utmost importance to the library, given the library's strong commitment to intellectual freedom. The ALA has formulated policy and best-practice guidelines for the use of RFID, but whether any given library system will follow them, I cannot say.

Karen Schneider, Chair of the California Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee, has written an excellent paper outlining the pros and cons of RFID use in the library. Among the concerns, she writes:
8. Librarians nationwide have acknowledged that privacy concerns related to RFID are new territory. No profession cares more about its users’ privacy than librarianship. However, we are only beginning to connect the dots with respect to RFID. We as a profession need to develop best practices for RFID and advertise these practices widely. We can either manage this issue or let it bite us in the fanny as watchdog organizations and the general public ask, correctly, why, and how, we are implementing this technology in libraries.

9. Libraries are part of the general world commons, and none of our actions take place
in a vacuum. There is an inexorable march toward RFID in libraries, for highly
compelling reasons outlined in the first section of this testimony. However, we cannot
assume that our tags cannot be read by (or have no interest to) other organizations, or that we are not contributing to the accumulated It has been observed that libraries adopting RFID en masse send an overarching message that we understand and approve of this technology.

10. Libraries have proved vulnerable to national agendas. Recent legislation (CIPA and
the Patriot Act) demonstrates that libraries have become highly porous battlegrounds for
some of the larger privacy and public -forum debates in our society. With CIPA, many
library budgets became dependent on the telecommunications discounts made available
through E-Rate, essentially forcing some libraries to adopt draconian policies and
procedures that limit Constitutionally-protected speech to adult users. With the Patriot
Act, we have seen the government become increasingly inventive and aggressive in its
efforts to track the reading habits of library users.
We're told the principal reason for adopting RFID in the library is as a cost-cutting measure. Will it really save money? The system purchased by Mississauga costs $2.6 million, which doesn't include staff training or maintenance or future related costs. I honestly don't know how this compares to the savings in labour. It's possible that public funds have merely been shifted from employing people in the community to purchasing equipment and maintenance contracts from private vendors.

The frustrating part of this, for me, is the same as with most technological changes: the technology drives the change. This is available, so we'll use it. Those of you who want to study the issues can do so later, when it's too late.

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